How to Build a Southern Gentleman: An Interview with ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Star Taylor John Smith

Sony Pictures Entertainment

How long can you protect your heart, especially when all you’ve known is isolation? This is a question both figuratively and literally posed upon Kya Clark (played as a young girl by Jojo Regina and as a young woman by Daisy Edgar-Jones), who finds herself abandoned by her family in a dilapidated shack hidden deep within the marshes of North Carolina. Considered an outcast by the neighboring well-to-do and working-class town of Barkley Cove because of her ‘wild’ upbringing, Kya doesn’t have any friends. Not until Tate Walker (played as a young boy by Luke David Blumm and a young man by Taylor John Smith) comes along and teaches Kya how to read and write and to properly identify the creatures and air fowl that reside on the banks of the marsh. Where the Crawdads Sing is both a beautiful and haunting southern coming-of-age tale told using two intermingling timelines that primarily focus on how Kya learns to navigate the harsh realities of life all while accepting the complications of love in the process. And with Tate by her side, Kya seemingly cannot fail.

The Black Cape talks with the Los Angeles native Smith about what it took to don that southern accent, his not-so-good boating skills, Tate’s love for Kya, and the making of Where the Crawdads Sing.

[edited for length and clarity]

Destiny Jackson: I was speaking to screenwriter Lucy Alibar and she told me that originally, the book author Delia Owens wanted to cast Robert Redford as Tate, and obviously that can’t be. But Lucy did mention you brought this incredible sweetness and gentleness to the role. So I wanted to ask, how did you read Tate? Like, what did you think of him during the audition process?

Taylor John Smith: That’s the sweetest thing ever, I will be journaling about that compliment later, thank you, Lucy! I mean charm was the first thing I thought of. On the page, Tate has been through it. He’s kind of struggling with some abandonment issues in his own life since his mom and his little sister were killed in a car accident. So he’s known that pain he’s felt that pain. And I don’t think he wants to bring anything other than kindness and gentleness and joy into anybody else’s life. And so when I read that on the page, I tried to bring that to set every day and even in the audition process. There’s a great line when Tate’s father is trying to tell him what it means to be a man. He says a real man cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what’s necessary to protect a woman. And I think that encapsulates Tate very well. And I just tried to bring that essence to the movie.

You mostly do horror-thrillers or action-type roles, but this one is a capital R, romance movie. I call it “The MarshBook” because there are some similarities to The Notebook in there … How did you kind of tap into this headspace?

Smith: Delia wrote such beautiful characters in this book that they were kind of easy to figure out on paper. Thankfully this wasn’t something that was too far away from how I kind of feel about myself and maybe other people have different opinions, but I try to treat people with kindness and be loving as possible. So it was less of a departure for me I guess. And that’s made it interesting.

So you’re a romantic guy? In honor of playing a Southern gentleman: What would you say is your most gentlemanly trait? Do you make a mean sweet tea? Hold open doors? Poetry?

Smith: Obviously, you gotta open doors, obviously walk people to the house when you drop them off after the date. I have a rule too about not being rude to a waiter on a date [or ever for that matter!] It’s important to treat everybody with kindness. Sometimes opening doors can turn against you because people think you’re weird, but I’m never going to stop doing that. And then I do like to write a handwritten note o two. Thank you cards are important.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures (Taylor John Smith and Daisy Edgar-Jones)

What drew you to this role? Like what did you latch onto when playing Tate?

Smith: I liked Kya’s story, it’s got a lot of resiliency. You know, this woman who’s been ostracized by society and abandoned by her family and kind of pushed down over and over and she continues to stand up for herself. I thought that was a very poignant theme. I think we all need it right now in life especially when it gets really tough, especially in the last couple of years. And I think we all need a superhero film that is just a regular person doing extraordinary things. And I just love the idea of being a sidekick to Kya.

I am curious to know about that boating you all had to do in the film was that actually you and Daisy and Harris? Who was the worst and best boater?

Smith: We did all have to do that stuff. Daisy is way, way better at boating. I’m pretty sure they only gave her like a quarter tank of gas cuz she would just rip out into the ocean. We’d probably never see her again. But she had so much fun. I was good at parking the boat that was about it. [Laughs].

That’s important.

Smith: Yeah, you know, it’s like you gotta land the plane and you know, take off that everything else is all fun up in the sky. But yeah we had two weeks of that then, we’d go fishing and stuff. We had a ton of time, like two weeks or so of just filming on the boats and going around through the marshes, it was a very fun experience. That was my first week of figuring out the inverted steering — — left goes right, right goes left. It was a fun experience though. One of the cool parts about having done this movie is being able to have tried new things and I learned how to exist in the middle of the Bayou in the middle of nowhere. And that’s why Kya is so cool because she’s able to, you know, survive and, and thrive in this hostile and austere environment on her own at such a young age and make a whole life for herself because of it.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures (Daisy Edgar-Jones)

Let’s talk about the Southern Drawl of it all, did you have a Southern dialect coach? Did you call up Austin Butler? How did you manage?

Smith: We had Francie Brown, this amazing dialect coach who taught everybody on set. And from the beginning, there were a couple of different iterations of the accent that they wanted. And eventually, they settled on the pilot mountain region of North Carolina, which is like a mountainous area of North Carolina, which was so specific and they had one recording of this guy doing an interview that I just played over and over and over again. And you know I just worked on it every day with Fran and thankfully she was on set as well. So if we had any trouble or, you know, if we were improving, she could go back and do a take and tweak things and fix something that wasn’t already on the page that we had worked on. It was cool though I’d never done an accent like that or had an accent coach before and it was super helpful.

I want to unpack this courtroom scene here at the end. Tate gives these incredible guilty sad eyes look, and at first, before I had read the book, and of course, saw the end of the movie, I thought maybe Tate did do the murder. But, I’m wondering you know, as it’s certainly set up to make people think that way, do you think Tate would have confessed to the crime falsely if Kya had really been in trouble?

Smith: When I first read the book, I 100% percent thought he did it. And then I thought like, what a dumb move it would be to let this girl go to prison for a crime you committed — then I got to the end. And I was like, “okay, thank God.” But I still felt like somewhere deep down that he had something to do with it. Because he loves her that much. But yeah when the trial started, you know, I wondered what kind of person would let somebody else go to prison for a crime that they did. But, he loved her so much, so he probably would’ve at least brought a shovel and started digging.

What would you hope audiences kind of take away from this film?

Smith: Well, I’m excited for people that have read the book to go see it. Because I think it’s such a loyal adaptation to the book. But for people that haven’t seen it, it’s got this beautiful romance story to it — the MarshBook as you call it — and it’s got this murder mystery, but ultimately it’s a story of survival. And it’s a beautiful one at that, the way to DP shot it and using super wide-angle lenses to capture the vast landscape of the marsh. It’s just so beautiful on a big 40-foot screen and to see it anywhere else besides the theater, I think would do the audience an injustice. I’m just excited for people to go see it. I’ve been running around like a little kid just excited for the 15th because I’m like, I know what it looks like. I want the audience to see it.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures (Reese Witherspoon, Harris Dickinson, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith)

And lastly, what was your favorite scene to film?

Smith: Probably the hardest scene was my favorite. It’s the one where Tate comes back after being gone for so many years and Kya’s expecting Chase to come back instead. It’s Tate and they have this really emotional exchange where he tries to say, “I’m sorry.” But there’s just too much betrayal then. And Tate has to accept that she might never forgive him. And it’s just like really sad, heartbreaking moment. That’s the catalyst for them to come back around eventually. And, I just love that scene. I had to boat up into it and at one point when they turned the cameras around on me, I did forget all of my lines as I was boating up to go park my boat. But I decided to go anyway, when they said action, not knowing literally my mind went blank and I had a mini panic attack. And then finally, as soon as I hit the dock and tied up my boat, it all came back to me.

Where the Crawdads Sing opens in the theaters July 15

[originally published on Medium]